Christ Centered Resources

It shall not return to me empty

Rev. Ed Searcy

Luke 13:1-9, Isaiah 55:1-13
University Hill United Church : Sun, March 18, 2001
Here we go. You know that we must be well into the season of Lent when we hear Jesus saying things like: “I tell you ... unless you repent, you will all perish”. It is hard for us to spend much time in the company of this Jesus. We much prefer a kinder, gentler Jesus. This Jesus sounds a little too much like those preachers we are trying to avoid by coming to a United Church on Sunday morning! Yet, we somehow understand that the season of Lent is a hard season. And somehow we know that it begins with the decision to repent. It is just that being told to repent feels a little too much like being scolded by our parents. Repentance reeks with guilt and remorse for us. We hear the command to ‘repent’ and are sure that it is a bad news day: ‘How was work today, honey?’ ‘Awful. The boss told me that I had to change my ways right now or get the pink slip next month.’ That’s how we hear Jesus call to repent. Yet, from the beginning, the New Testament calls repentance “good news”. Remember? “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ ” (Mark 1:14-15) . It so happens that our Lenten study groups this week are asking the question: ‘How do we enter the kingdom of God?’. The answer could not be more obvious ... or more challenging. Jesus arrives on the scene announcing that the kingdom of God is close ... as close as repentance. This is the good news - the ‘gospel truth’ - which we gather to celebrate and to trust in Christian community. Imagine rejoicing - rather than cringing - when we hear Jesus’ call to repent. In truth, the call to repent usually falls on deaf ears. Jesus is confronted by the curious who ask questions about the connection between tragic suffering and sinful living. He turns the question around, pointing to their own curious lives which are leading to their own certain demise. It is a message that few are eager to hear. Just ask the family of an addict who will not agree that the bottle or the pills or the compulsive work is, quite literally, killing her. Remember Bishop Desmond Tutu saying of white South Africa: “It’s very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep” . Just ask the scientists who this week warned that, at the current rate of warming, Hudson’s Bay will be free of ice in fifty years. Does such news stop us in our tracks. No. It is very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep. Repentance has the ring of bad news to those who are in denial. Those who do not want to face the hard truth silence Jesus. Those who are afraid of coming to terms with the mess that they are in want a gospel without repentance. But the good news of the Christian gospel is all about the transformation of a repentant life. How to get the message across? How to wake up a people pretending to be asleep? That is the question facing God. And the God’s answer is surprisingly obvious: an ad campaign. I kid you not. It is right here, in the fifty-fifth chapter of the book of Isaiah. Yahweh, the Maker of the Universe, pitching repentance with the best of the street vendors: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters: and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? ... Incline your ear, & come to me; listen, so that you may live.” Listen to this. Do you hear? The call to repent is not a command so much as it is an invitation. The call to repent is an invitation to a people who spend all their hard-earned cash on that which does not nourish. It is an invitation to those who work hard at making things better and yet are never satisfied. In the midst of the clamouring of vendors pitching all sorts of get rich, get well, get more schemes there is one voice which proposes a radically different way forward. It is a voice that says ‘get rid’ of the ways you have been living ... and turn to me. This is the heart of repentance. In Greek ‘metanoia’. In English, literally, to turn around. To repent is to change direction. It is to change your mind. It is to change your life. And repentance begins with the realization that the way in which we are headed leads to destruction. That is why repentance sounds, at first, like such bad news. The addict cannot fathom life that is no longer empty without a bottle or a needle or more work. We who are addicted to the internal combustion engine cannot imagine the prospect of going ‘cold turkey’ in order to detoxify the earth. A church submerged in a culture that preaches a self-help gospel can hardly believe that God does not want us to ‘pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps’. Yet at some point it begins to dawn on us that we cannot ‘keep on keeping on’ in this direction and live. Somehow, in some way the veil of denial is swept aside and we see just how wretched our situation has become. Surely all is lost. It is obviously too late for us. We have done too much damage to our own body ... to our own family ... to the church ... to the earth and its peoples and its creatures. If only there was time to turn things around. There is. This is the good news of repentance. There is time to turn away from the lies we have been living, time to turn toward the God who is near at hand. This is Isaiah’s sermon to the exiled Israelites in Babylon, submerged in a foreign culture, forgetting the ways of God, the Way of Life: “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:6-7) This, too, is Jesus’ sermon. There is time, says Jesus, to turn and enter the kingdom of God. There is another season for the barren fig tree that has born no fruit (Luke 13:6-9). There is time for tax-collectors and sinners of every stripe to turn their lives around and follow. There is time for the church that shows no signs of fertility to come to life. Time for the tree to be pruned, nourished and tended so that life may yet appear. So notice that repentance is not an emotion. It is not feeling sorry for your sins. Repentance is a decision. It is deciding that we have been wrong in supposing that we could ever be a self-reliant, self-help people. Repentance is a decision to place our trust - to place our lives - in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Says Jesus:“Truly I tell you unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Repentance is all a matter of deciding who to trust. Those of us who have had the privilege of encountering Jean Vanier during his current visit to Vancouver recognize this gospel. It lies at the heart of Jean Vanier’s life and message. “Who do you trust?” he asks us. “Who can you speak with honestly about your weakness, about your brokenness, about your pain?”. Vanier comes preaching the good news of a gospel of repentance to a culture that places extraordinary value on climbing the ladder, on competing and winning, on hiding or shaming any sign of weakness or disability. He invites us to turn away from this path that leads inevitably to rivalry, to broken relationships, to violence, to destruction. He points to the way of Jesus, the way of childlike trust in which we come before God and one another just as we are. It is, says Jean, the way of becoming human .. the way of becoming again a child of God. This journey of turning away from habits and delusions that destroy ... this pilgrimage of turning towards the God whose Way leads to life ... lies at the heart of the life of Christian community. Do you see? Repentance is, in the end, what people come looking for when they dare to venture into a church ... or when they query you at work about Christianity. They want to know if it is true that there is another way to live ... a way that leads to life. And they are curious to discover if anyone is actually living this alternate way. Many folk are disillusioned with the church. Yet most of them do not argue with the message that the Church proclaims. No. Most who are disillusioned with the Church speak of its hypocrisy. They are saddened that it preaches a way of repentance ... and yet looks to be no different than any other group or club or social institution. So let’s be honest with one another here. Living a repentant life is the hard work that lies at the core of our existence. As one of you noted on the Vision Statements we posted during last week’s Annual Meeting: “Nobody warned me that being a church member could be a struggle - - adhering to God’s law in my whole life. It’s a challenge, but a worthy one.” Or as another wrote: “I want help not just with education/learning, but changing my lifestyle. I’d like serious discussion about this - - how we can give each other courage to really change our individual lives outside of church.” With comments like this we’re getting close to the heart of our common agenda in the years ahead. What kind of lives does Jesus Christ call us to leave behind? What kind of lives - what kind of life together - does Jesus Christ invite us to turn and live? This all sounds rather daunting. It can, in truth, be so overwhelming that we become paralysed with fear. The anxiety within us ... the trouble between us ... the chaos in the world beyond looms so large that our small turnings hardly seem to be the stuff of faithful repentance. A single bottle renounced. A small forgiveness risked. A tentative hand outstretched. In the grand scheme of things we wonder how we will ever accomplish the huge turning that is necessary. Dare we trust the promise of God? “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11) This is a remarkable promise. It claims that God’s word is not idle chatter or religious fantasy. God’s word is not empty verbiage ... it will work! It will produce! Rain and snow cause food. God’s Word causes a new future for the lost and exiled. Do you hear? Repentance is God’s doing. Even our decisions to turn, to change, to live lives trusting in God are somehow the creative work of God’s living word changing and transforming our hearts. I would hardly be able to believe it except for what I see here every Sunday ...and in your lives on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday. When this community was beaten down, exiled from its former glory and humbled by the need to sell its property you determined to do one thing. You had no programs for growth. No strategies for change. No carefully designed redevelopment project. Instead you came here to this Chapel and determined to worship God ... and to be nourished on God’s Word. In song, in prayer, in study, in preaching and in living together this congregation has struggled to give voice and ear to the living promises and call of God. Now we sense that something remarkable is stirring. We cannot name exactly what is happening to us but we see signs of new growth, we feel the sap of great joy and of emerging courage. Like a barren fig tree which has been nourished and tended we dare to hope that the blossoms we now see will yet bear a productive harvest. This unmistakable change, this slow transformation, this sure turning to a new way of life is the good news of repentance. Yes, it is the hard and difficult work of our determination to live changed lives and a new life together. But, in the end, it is the handiwork of God whose transforming Word can be trusted to turn us ... and this world ... around. Thanks be to God! Amen.